Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Twistin' My Melon Man

The exam board this morning went very smoothly and afterwards Richard gave me a quick guided tour of the facilities in Carlisle. The campus is on the site of an old arts college and still retains some of the feel, particularly in the way creative departments work together. It's an impressive place and I'm going to enjoy my bi-annual trips to Cumbria see how they work.

After lunch I headed South to Manchester, where I'm attending the HE Academy annual conference. I did my PGCE in the city and, for four summers in the early nineties, ran the now defunct Manchester Youth Theatre's summer courses, alongside the benevolent, if occasionally inebriated, Geoff and Hazel Sykes. Geoff died in 1998 and the last time I was in the city was to speak at his memorial service. I learnt more in the few years I was in the North than I have before or since, but I also knew at the time that Geoff was the last of the old school of educationalists who worked with an unchecked mixture of terror and inspiration. His passion for theatre and for championing anybody who was prepared to graft knew no bounds, but woe betide you if you were lazy, pretentious or unreliable - unreconstructed it was, dignity in the work place it was not. The MYT did produce some top actors and directors though: Mike Leigh, Lesley Sharp, David Threfell and Lyndsey Marshall to name but a few.

So this afternoon, in temperatures and sunshine, that were at odds with my remembrance of the North West, it was exciting to reconnect with the city's changed centre. I found it incredibly nostalgic, but also inspiring to see the speed of redevelopment. There are familiar landmarks - the beautiful curve of library walk, the peace statue of a fat faced woman feeding pigeons next to the town hall, the plaque on the Free Trade Hall remembering the Peterloo massacre, the Chinese Arch, the eclectic emporium that is Afflecks Palace and the ever fabulous Cornerhouse ... but some things are no more. The anarchist bookshop off Piccadilly gardens has been swamped by posher shops, as has the football fanzine shop in St.Ann's, the city centre Odeon has disappeared and the iconic Hacienda, where all things seem to begin, is now a block of plush apartments.

Met up with Vixter this evening who's up working on Prima Donna, Rufus Wainwright's opera teching into the Palace as part of the Manchester Festival. We sat and chatted on the re lit canal by Deansgate station, an area that ten years ago represented the fringes of the 'safe' centre. You didn't come this way unless you were with somebody who knew the score. Chip butties, cheap pills and fights replaced by pear cider over ice, rocket salads and the neon glow of a city rediscovering it's commercial excellence.

Sunday, 28 June 2009


Caught the morning train up to Carlisle to do some external examining for the University of Cumbria. It's good to get out and see what similar institutions are doing and how they're doing it. It helps give some perspective to the decisions we're taking back at St.Mary's.

I was met at the station by Richard Milburn, who convenes much of the work and after a pleasant lunch spent the afternoon looking over the students work and tutors comments in my hotel room.

I was struck mostly by the similarity in approach. Both of us are trying very hard to offer students a genuine opportunity to face up to employment with realism and confidence. In particular I marked some excellent submissions for a Cultural Entrepreneurship module which takes students through a business method of preparation for their self-formed companies. At its best this work moved from being a simulated exercise to becoming genuine. The portfolio serving as a marketing tool to persuade local theatres to programme and arts funders to take applications seriously.

It's a tricky balance between ensuring students have a bedrock understanding of theatre as a discipline and encouraging them to be business savvy. Of course work that just looks at audience or self-presentation will inevitably be safe and perhaps reactionary - but there was an impressive range of missions, ideas and genres represented within the companies, from Theatre in Education, to reminiscence work, to new writing, to live mixing and digital media services. If a core exists to Drama as an academic subject it maybe shifting.

Friday, 26 June 2009


To the Young Vic to see the impressive Kursk - a collaboration between site specific company Sound and Fury and the writer Bryony Lavery, based on the tragic events in the Summer of 2000 when a state of the art Russian submarine exploded and took all 118 crew members down with her.

In every sense this was 'immersion' theatre with the tiny Maria studio transformed with immaculate accuracy into a British submarine, shared by cast and audience, patrolling the Baring Sea and monitoring the manoeuvres of the Russians, in the hours leading up to the explosion. The attention to detail and claustrophobia of life as a sub mariner is brilliantly captured and from the first moment we enter the space we're made aware of the tidiness and care that sharing such intimate surroundings, during a twelve week dive, requires. The spotless repetition of routine is the only way to ensure sanity hundreds of metres below the ice.

Bryony's script explores the fragile relationships that this world creates. A coxswain studies Haiku poetry for a correspondence course, creating his own perfect bubbles, in a neat metaphor for the purpose of precision.
Meanwhile, action is further deferred, by the stoic captain who receives news via radio that the newly born child of one of his crew has died in a cot death. Weeks away from surfacing and having no way of predicting how the sailor will respond, he delays telling him, wrestling instead for what to say and when to say it. This domestic episode counterpoints a second dilemma as the crew are tracking Kursk and so understand that she has gone down. There is still some hope for life if the alarm is raised before the oxygen runs out, but this would create an international incident and so with frustration and anger they sail on. So nothing happens and we, sharing the space and the secrets, are left painfully aware of our lack of influence. Suspended as we are, frightened and miles from home.

Promenade performance is certainly back with avengence, perhaps riding triumphantly on the back of Punchdrunk's success but Kursk, like the Iraq War inspired Stovepipe earlier in the summer, shows that the form can escape decadence and work within the conventions of a scripted narrative to question the world which we are so complicit with.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Off The Wall

Full day. I ran a staff training to try and explore the way undergraduates experience their first two years. I think the staff, as much as our students have a tendency towards kinesthetic learning styles so rather than sitting round tables I marked out the theatre to create four rooms, each one representing a semester in the first and second year. In each area I put tables covered in paper to represent the modules the students take and then I asked my colleagues to move from room to room scribbling on each table the things that they thought students should be learning at each stage. I also gave out coloured chalk and encouraged to scrawl any ideas we had about how students feel at each stage of their education. I like this kind of creative problem solving... with more time we'd have made compilation tapes to represent each phase, or cooked a meal to discover the flavours of each stage, it would also have been good to bring in the student reps - but I suspect this might have been a bridge to far for this first session.

There was some nervousness at first but soon we were rushing between rooms, cross referencing content from each module. Seeing where the gaps are, realising where we're making things too easy and understanding how dangerous some of the assumptions we make about students can be. Many of September's intake will have been born in 1991 and it's hard to measure the cultural capital they bring. By the end the space was desecrated with colourful graffiti, opinion, debate and some really exciting new ideas to influence the curriculum with.

In the afternoon we opened up for discussion and tried to put up some ideas of stage posts for the end of each semester. What do we expect students to be in command of? By five our brains were fuzzy, but we were much more aware of the expectation we're putting on the students.

Went onto a really positive meeting with Molly and Orode from Richmond Theatre, reviewing our partnership over the last year and discussing more possibilities for the future. Molly is off to New Zealand in November, but has ensured that the job description for her replacement includes a commitment to keep working with us. Much relief at this. I'm also hoping that Orode will come in and pick up the modules that Molly would have taught. At the moment continuity is very important.

I got home just as news of Michael Jackson was beginning to break on the radio. It's odd when an icon dies unexpectedly and somehow morbidly compelling. The press coverage was blanket, total and frenetic; I stayed tuned in for most of the night. Jackson lost the plot in the second half of his life, tried to become monumental in a quasi-religious way. He couldn't find a way to intelligently reinvent himself past thirty and I guess in the end he'll be seen as a modern tragedy, a symbol of a nightmarish form of infantilism

...but wouldn't life be so much poorer without songs like The Love You Save and I Want You Back. As tunes they're supreme. They rise, arch, take you sky high only to tuck you back in on yourself. I turn the radio up whenever I hear the opening cords. It's like a long lost love turning up unannounced with bottles of champagne. Exciting and familiar all at once.

'I just can't ...I just can't... I just can't control my feet.'

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Beyond A Joke.

Cycled across Richmond Park for a Teaching Stand-Up Comedy seminar at Roehampton University, to talk about some of the work we did with The Comedy School last year. It was really interesting. The focus was on the transferable academic skills that Stand-Up brings, which included the proposition that structuring a routine, paying attention to the precision of language, rhythm and word choice feeds back into formal essay writing. It's a fascinating idea. Many speakers stressed the connection between the timing of a punchline for maximum effect and the ability to command syntax in formal assessment. An effective gag, like a persuasive argument, is succinct, clear and truthful.

Stand-Up is a growing subject in Unis and all of us present are converted to its academic validity. There are, however, some interesting debates to be had. One revolved around taste, with the consensus being that there should be no taboo subjects for students to explore - but equally the right to call the material... You're out of order and an offensive Nazi!!! ... should also be allowed. Say what you like, but don't just hide behind the laughter of the mob - be prepared to justify your decisions.

Back at St.Mary's the staff were all called to a Dignity in the Workplace workshop, which included the recruitment of confidential colleagues, to whom we can go to if we're the victims of bullying or harassment. A kind of neighbourhood watch. The problem with this is it's divisive and, however well meaning, encourages half truth, rumour and finger pointing. I hate cruel or mean behaviour, but any imposed institutional policy only provides a false sense of security to victims as well as criminalising irreverence and playful banter. Respect comes in many forms.

Ultimately if we can laugh at each other, the quality of our lives together is increased immeasurably. Stand-Up can teach us to look at our flaws, celebrate them publicly and through this cathartic process live a more humane existence. To be immune to offense allows us to move onto the front foot with our hopes, dreams and ambitions... and then there's the performance skills including creating an intensely sensitive awareness of your audience, its moods, stamina and energy. In every way it seems an excellent discipline for students to explore.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Walpole sur Mer.

Just come back from three fantastic days planning with Bicat and Co in the South of France to do some initial preparation for the 2010 Walpole project. It's great to get away and just spend some time on one focus. Tina had rented a town house in the Catalan town of Banyuls sur Mer, the last outpost of France before the Pyrenees rise up to form the natural border with Spain. A slow place where the locals, rise early and dip their bread in blood red wine for breakfast.

Together with Tina's brothers composer Nick and writer Tony and Nick's artist wife Natalie we played around with some ideas to see whether an exciting shape might emerge and also whether we can all work together.

Despite the call of the sea, the market and the table cafes we managed to get loads done, disciplining ourselves to two sessions of three hours of work a day followed by a shared meal, swim and siesta. To end the day a cliff top walk to the headland and a bottle of rose wine in the local vineyard. This relaxed rhythm made for incredibly productive work and gently we seemed to find a route forward.

I'm also finding more and more affinity with Horace, who seems to have been a man out of time, sighing for a pre-enlightenment world. I'd always imagined him to be a bit of a weedy fop, whose idle life was a poor reaction to the privilege into which he was born but time with the letters and biography have revealed him braver.
His elegant embellishments and desire to delight seemed, even as he lived, to be like something on the fade; although his near Republicanism and anti slavery views place him simultaneously in the vanguard. He is one of the last champions of a delicate age before the beastly Victorians came steaming in with their all holes barred industrial romanticism, clouding over the paler blues and pinks of Georgian skies. Horace was a serious man, who worked very hard to appear frivolous. Beside him the emerging Wordsworth and Coleridge seem imposing and brutish.

He can be very naughty. Here's a description of one of Queen Charlotte's maids of honour

'Madame Dusson, who is Dutch-built, and whose muscles are pleasure-proof, came with her.'

When one of his constituents complained that, unlike his father the grandiose Sir Robert Walpole, he had sat as his political supporters bore him through the streets.

'Madam, when I am placed in a chair, I conclude I am to sit in it; besides as I cannot imitate my father in great things, I am not at all ambitious of mimicking him in little ones.'

We talked a bit about casting. Tony saw him as Kenneth Williams. I felt he was closer to a mix of Jarvis Cocker and Willy Wonka. Guy Henry?

Later on we played around with The Castle of Otranto - gosh it's confusing! But wonderfully surreal and absurd. The first image of the sickly Conrad being crushed to death on his wedding day by a giant helmet falling from the sky or the hundred silent knights who appear baring the ancient sword of the dilating Alfonso seem straight out of Monty Python.

We packed up this morning, caught the train to Perpignan and flew back to England. Next stage is to try and get my head around the politics of the late eighteenth century and to try and link the architecture of Horace's mind to Strawberry Hill itself, a third layer, along with the novel and biography to intertwine into a fascinating story.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Comings and Goings

There's some changes in the staffing for next year. Glyn is moving on after five years here to concentrate more on writing and work as a producer, starting with his production of Coffee, (see image) which is playing at the Edinburgh fringe, and joining us is Patsy Burn from Northumbria. Patsy is a voice specialist an area that we've really needed support in and we're hoping that her arrival will really move us up a gear in this particular discipline. It's an exciting appointment.

As ever at the end of the year the last few days have been a period of review to enable us to look forward to the future, right the wrongs on the courses and improve.

For me the big focus needs to be on the Drama core - which students sometimes see as less interesting to the practical pathways. It's always going to be tougher to create a stimulating lecture/seminar course, but with more focus on the way these modules feed into the training and perhaps more innovative approaches to delivery we can being to square the circle. The last couple of years have seen us big on the vision for the department and we have I think put together a course that takes the best of University and the best of Drama School training - but the mini battles, over what to teach and how often to teach it, remain.

One of the very positive aspects about the department is that staff fight to increase their own contact hours (as the student protests in Manchester demonstrate this isn't true in all institutions) and the focus remains pointedly on the student experience, occasionally at the expense of our own research.

Value added is key to giving the students a fighting chance. I've been lucky enough to work for two remarkable institutions at remarkable times. Firstly I was a member of the National Youth Theatre during the late eighties and early nineties and secondly I taught at Stratford College in the late nineties. These were two of my happiest experiences and what marks them out as special is that nobody worried about the hours they put in or what they did. The work was everything, sacrifices were huge and shared, meaning that the pride that we had in each other was absolutely inclusive. It's no surprise to me that so many from these companies have successfully managed to make their way into the theatre industry in a way that isn't true of the places I've worked that have tried to regulate hours.

If solidarity means running the same risks then happiness comes from having the courage to take them in the first place.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


After three years at St Mary's I'm biting the bullet, leaving my rented flat and beginning to look for a house to live in. So I spent the day trawling up and down the towpath from Twickenham to Ham to Teddington and back round to Richmond looking at properties - it's been wonderful and a reminder of how fantastic this area is. The sun has shone throughout which always makes the river look beautiful, and the weekend crowds falling alfresco out of the cafes and pubs really give a holiday feel. It's a miniature Arcadia, choca with green spaces, coffee bars and bookshops. Occasionally some of my town bound friends ask if I wouldn't prefer to live closer to central London.... but it's only half hour away on the train and why pound the pavements when you can walk on grass. It seems the best of all possible worlds.

Once the estate agents had finished viewings I sought the shade of the Richmond filmhouse to see Ken Loach's Looking for Eric - surely one of the best films about football (or rather football fans) ever made. A Strictly Ballroom for Salford.

Faced with trials and tribulations, postman and Man United fanatic Eric seeks inspiration by imagining himself in conversation with the man he most associates with happier times - the mercurial flawed genius Eric Cantona - who stars as lui meme. Through a mixture of Gallic philosophy and belief in possibilities, the film unmasks the winning psychology of a chevalier formidable; whilst Loach's familiar mixture social realism and empathy for working class life, pays homage to the disappearing bond between the fans and their heroes. It's a lamentation for a time, not so long a go, when the terraces were affordable to all and being there with your mates to witness history or a touch of magic could sustain the humdrum week.

Hidden deep in the film is Cantona's own nostalgic memory of his glory days at Old Trafford, running out in front of 60,000. In one particular moment he stands on the balcony of a tower block looking out over a grey Manchester sky and tells his postman alter ego that winning wasn't everything but whether through a perfect volley, a dazzling run or an exquisite pass, he always overcame his fears by trying to leave the crowd with a gift. A noblese oblige!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The War Machine Springs to Life.

During the early years of the Space Race NASA spent millions of dollars and several years on the research and development of a pen that would defy zero gravity and write in space. They launched it at a conference amidst much pomp and circumstance. The chief of the Soviet delegation was suitably impressed and congratulated his competitors for their invention, brilliance and ingenuity before taking a pencil from his top pocket and putting it on the table in front of him.

It's hard to talk about Peter Pan which had it's press night at the Neverland Pavilion in Kensington Gardens last night.

The acting isn't bad at all and the company are working overtime to give the show life and vitality... but watching it you can't help but sense that the battle is being lost and on a number of misconceived fronts.

Firstly the mega bucks technology reduces every performance - even larger than life Jonathan Hyde as Hook - to bit parts in a huge visual son illuminare that, whilst breathtaking at times, such as during the flight over Edwardian London, is too often expensive wallpaper rather than intrinsic to the story.

The spectacle was, however, wonderfully subverted by one guerilla child who worked out where the lights were hiden and had some fun projecting huge shadow puppets of wolves and butterflies onto the set. She was swiftly ushed back to her seat. Later on a fly walked across a lens creating a monstrous beast that inadvertently and immediately captivated the slightly restless audience.

A second problem is that the adapted script lacks a clear voice - Is it for kids? Is it for adults? Is it urban chic? Is it clipped Kensington prose? In reality it has little sense of continuity, is occasionally vulgar, and feels as if it's been pulled from pillar to post - too many chiefs not enough lostboys? Caught up with this is a confusion as to whether we're watching a pantomime or a beautifully crafted play for children? The pumped acting style seems to call for a level of interaction, which is then never actually unleashed, but the staging, which rarely brings actors into direct contact with the audience suggests that we should sit in passive wonder. Were there spirits to enforce or art to enchant this wouldn't matter but without either playfulness or magic - the evening is a flat experience.

There are some good moments - Tinkerbell sets a cue for what the show might have been as an atomic Spanish punk with DM's, a tutu and fairy lights entwined in her back combed hair and there's a wonderful crocodile, expertly engineered from a tandem bicycle and skillfully operated by two pyjama clad puppeteers who peddle like mad as it comes roaring into the round.

For the producers, though, it's the syndrome that every parent must dread - huge investment on a state of the art toy - when secretly children are pulled imaginatively to creating stories from the cardboard box it came in. The only bright spot is that a huge risk averse corporate exercise like this, in a royal park and a tourist filled summer, might just make little mountains of money to plough back into the industry... but every time another £1,000 is grossed a back combed fairy somewhere will die.

Monday, 8 June 2009

All's Well That Ends Well.

Why is All's Well that Ends Well so rarely performed? Is it because the tests of loyalty are more refined in The Merchant of Venice, the French bashing more boisterous in Henry V, the gulling of a fool more delicious in Twelfth Night, the flight back to court more exhilarating in The Winters Tale, the demise of the King more heart breaking in Lear, the love more daring in Romeo and Juliet, the foolery more malcontent in As You Like It, the banter crisper in Much Ado or the farce better paced in The Comedy of Errors?

Or is it just that our modern sensibility finds it difficult to imagine that Helena could remain in love with bad boy Bertram despite the dastardly way he treats her.

Tonight at the National I saw the play reclaimed both as a wonderful modern fairy story and a Shakespearean classic as complex, dense and tender as any of his other comedies.

Marianne Elliot has directed a gem of a show drawing on archetypes from the European tradition of fairy tales both in Rae Smith's brilliant design and through the clever and consistent characterisation of the key players.

The play is packed with exquisite performances. There is particularly rich work from Michelle Terry as love lorn Cinderella -esque Helena. She is bright as a button, unswervingly assured that the intensity of her passion will be requited; her duelling wit only unmasked by uncomfortable shame in the face of rejection. George Rainsford makes a fine countering Bertram, unaware and unwilling to consider the damage he has done blaming all, not unreasonably, on youth. We're made aware that this handsome Prince isn't ready for commitment from the first moment where he hysterically shadow fences invisible dragons with a wooden sword.

Beyond these battles, Conleth Hill provides excellent comic relief as the posturing Parolles and both Oliver Ford Davies and Clare Higgins are unforgettably powerful as the King of France and the Countess of Rossillion respectively. Imposing figures of benign authority, upholders of the traditionalist's true belief that marriage is the only way to achieve a happy ending.

This is a production that demonstrates that All's Well, as a Shakespeare sampler and an exemplary study of redemption through maturity, works brilliantly for beginners and connoisseurs alike. I left the theatre feeling that for too long directors, unsure of its true brilliance and nervous of its anti-heroism, have let it fall between the gap.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Observer

Caught the matinee of Matt Charman's new play The Observer in the Cottesloe yesterday. It's well made, about something important and directed with huge confidence by Richard Eyre - proper stuff.

Fiona Russell, played with wonderful spiky assurance by Anna Chancellor, is deputy chief of the operation to monitor that a fair election process is carried out in an unnamed West African country. She is good at her job, but more dangerously believes that democracy, in its absolute form will bring benefit and change to the people. This leads her to overstep the mark and through tenacity and the occasional blinked vision begin to influence as much as observe, keeping polling stations open beyond the allotted time and trying to register thousands of additional voters between the two rounds of the election. On the way her impartiality shifts and what begins as well meaning liberalism turns rapidly into a crusade. Perspective gone she encourages villagers to stand up in the face of violent intimidation, judges to expunge protocols, her team to abandon diplomatic language in their report and the press to broadcast disturbing images of police brutality. The speed of her conversion is dizzying and is beautifully nuanced by the suggestion that her romanticism is driven by a simple truth, pertaining to most idealists. She is lonely and in need of recognition.

Occasionally the play over reaches, a threatening encounter with the head of the military to negotiate the terms under which the incumbent President might concede or the open bribery of the Foreign Office official trying to glean information from Fiona's translator Daniel - but in general the exhilarating pace with which the action is moved, complete with Lloyd Hutchinson brilliantly cynical News 24 correspondent sound biting cliches to camera, keep the audience on the edge of seats as the personal and political situation unfolds.

At heart the play is a Platonic call to keep observers and interventionists apart. Charman knows both are needed but the work unheroically reveals the coercive bullshit of those who seek to empower the internal process rather than simply handing over power. As such it identifies the dangers of the West's post-imperial relationship with Africa much more sensitively than the ultra emotive Death and the Kings Horsemen, currently addressing a similar theme in the Olivier. That Charman is an excellent wordsmith as well as producing cracking plots makes the work all the more convincing.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Sing to Me Through Open Windows.

Off to The Orange Tree late yesterday evening to see former graduate Andy Brunskill's directorial debut. He chose Sing to Me Through Open Windows by Arthur Kopit - a strange, whimsical meditation on aging and the loss of innocence. At the heart of the play is the paternal relationship between fading magician Ottoman Judd and schoolboy Andrew. Every year at the beginning of Spring, the windows are opened and Andrew visits his hero to see the wonder of a magical circus act - but each year the conversation grows more stilted, the act more stale and the wonder less impressive.

The trouble with the work is understanding whose story this is. I suspect it's Andrew's - both a memory and a future. The absurdity of the text would certainly allow more focus to see Ottoman and his sidekick Loveless as magnificent, if dusty beasts. At one point Andrew describes Ottoman as the 'tallest of all the shadows' a marvellous visual image and clue.

Andy chooses a more democratic route and we're given a detailed psychological portrait of a man losing his capabilities as he struggles to control the show. There's a lot of thought and graft gone into carving out the performance, but we end up being objective voyeurs of a slightly weird event rather than feeling genuine involved empathy for the inevitable distancing between the old man and the growing child.

Still the work doesn't lack guts and Andy is brave enough to slow the pace to allow us to see the disintegration. I hope it's well received.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Bar The Door!

A long time ago I played a monk in a touring production of Eliot's verse Drama Murder in Cathedral for the National Youth Theatre. The show started in Christchurch Spitalfields went up to St.Giles in Edinburgh for the Festival, played the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in Newcastle before ending up at the Moscow Arts Theatre. It was a fantastic trip ... but to be honest apart from scuttling about in a monk like fashion, rising in mock amazement when Thomas A' Beckett returned from France and shouting my one line 'The Door is Barred!' as dramatically as I could, there wasn't that much to do. The starring roles carried the action and we obediently provided the wallpaper.

As the tour went on boredom, and inevitable subversion, grew and the monks started to make up fantasy back stories and sacred duties for their characters. Some of us looked after the bees, some illuminated manuscripts, some fermented mead, others tended the orchards and one of our number memorably became a sandal thief - this at least gave us something to improvise quietly in the back ground ('A good year for windfalls, brother Mark' or 'I'm afraid I'm clean out of left feet this week, brother Martin') whilst the turbulent priest's story was re-enacted out in front of us.

By the time we had reached Stanislavski's hallowed theatre we'd realised that our large cassocks could hold almost anything and a new competition evolved for what could be hidden in the sleeves - this led to bags of chips, water pistols, bottles of vodka and one evening a kitten joining us on stage. We were untouchable and the joy was in getting away with it.

I was reminded of this bad behaviour today because the smooth and ever reliable James Purnell was amongst our number (understudying Dan Craig as first knight - but that's a different story, Bond was obviously a harder figure to assassinate.) James was renowned for being sensible - often refusing to join in with the squirting or animal kidnapping fun - and whilst the rest of us indulgently corpsed our way through the shows - he remained steadfastly focused on providing exemplary monastic support to the archbishop in a range of impressive genuflects, bows and head shakes, even cowering behind the nearest pillar as the Knights ran Thomas through with their long swords. At the end of the run James shook each of our hands in turn, joined the Labour Party and disappeared off to Oxford to start his PPE degree.

The last line of his resignation letter released last night reads - 'I am not seeking the leadership nor acting with anyone else. My actions are my own considered view and nothing more.' Sad as the whole sorry tragedy of Gordon's demise is, if Brother James has forsaken his door keeping duties then it's only a matter of time before the Knights come storming through the sanctuary once again.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Strawberry Ham.

It's been a really positive day of meetings and the plans for next year are beginning to take shape. First up this morning Jorge and Gary came over from Ham House to talk about how we might work together next year.

The proposal is for our third year Drama in the Community students to become an associate company attached to the house in the build up to their 400 anniversary celebrations in 2010.

We'd work closely, get ourselves immersed in the house, its history and collections initially by training up as tour guides, run Christmas and Summer entertainments and develop a range of public events and experiences. It would mean a genuine partnership with the National Trust and offer our finalists a real opportunity to develop the skills, training and stamina needed for the workplace, as well as see the way the house operates on a yearly cycle. As with all the best work at HE level, there won't be anywhere to hide or excuses to make - our ideas will be tested on the road - but the work might just throw up some new possibilities for how performance and heritage can meet. So a huge commitment, but we were all very excited by the potential of the plans. Gary is keen on a legacy and so if this year is successful as a pilot it's clear that the room is there for an ongoing liaison.

This afternoon Tina and I met with the Strawberry Hill Trust, who are gearing up to re-open the Walpole House later in the year. We're keen to help celebrate the event and find ways to work with them on two projects - a Winter show of Gothic splendour mixing his letters with a magic shadow puppet show capturing the atmospheric nature of The Castle of Otranto and then another quest production for children imagined in and around the renovated eighteenth century gardens - although this won't be until spring 2011.

This evening I went to see the results of a twelve week project we're been hosting for Richmond Theatre's creative learning department, working with families for whom English is a second language. Orode's been heading up the work and it was wonderful to watch fairy stories being told by the participants firstly in their own mother tongue before being repeated in an English translation.

The stories came from Columbia, Eritrea, Poland, Finland, Turkey, Nepal, China and Brazil and featured a huge range of characters, creatures and magical happenings, with the group borrowing from each others traditions to create new international myths. In one we had South American frogs guarding the sleeping Eastern European Princess from an African Hyena, who could only become human through the magical forces of a Scandinavian wizard. The most wonderful aspect is to see the children, who pick up language very quickly through school and especially play, helping to teach and explain to their parents the directions for each scene or the rules for a game. All done with much laughter, wonder and a terrific sense of fun.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Under A Billowing Canvass

Tying things up now and beginning to think ahead a little. We had a marvellous picnic at Tina's yesterday to debrief and celebrate the community show. There were many exciting break throughs in the work and much to talk about. As ever the question of efficiency was brought up - could or should we have started earlier? Did we get the buy in from the schools that we wanted?

One of the problems seems to be establishing the credibility of the students as being reliable, committed and able to deliver, perhaps not helped by my own romantic sense of their ability to achieve amazing results. Some of the schools we worked with undoubtedly saw them as useful teaching assistants, but weren't so prepared to embrace the extra curricular commitment that this project demands. With time and legacy I think this will get easier and delivering two very well received and successful projects on the bounce in Richmond and now in Hounslow certainly helps - but I still wonder whether setting students up to liaise with the schools and venue directly is the right process.

What I don't doubt is that minor set backs, although in themselves annoying, don't half make great learning opportunities and that Danielle and Kathleen (working with the schools) and Emma (working with Chiswick House) really did develop pragmatic, diplomatic and inventive strategies to ensure that our partnerships worked.

As the day went on and the sun continued to shine we decamped onto rugs under a huge, dreamy billowing patchwork cloth that Tina had cleverly rigged up to provide shade and a touch of exotic beauty and there we stayed til nightfall eating, drinking and laughing as the year lazily drew to an end.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Appleford in the Heart of the Nation.

The weather is fantastic, which seems to have kept everybody in buoyant spirits. I spent the weekend back in Appleford watching the Cup Final and breaking through the back of the marking. It was great to put a little distance between the year gone and start to ease gently into the summer.

Appleford is tiny only with 200 houses. My parents bought their house in the mid-sixties and I spent my entire childhood there. Going back is always joyful and from Twickenham a one change stop in Reading means I can do door to door in under two hours.

...but there is trouble afoot. Didcot, expanding with commuting families and new built estates, is an economic success story and threatens to swallow the village into its suburbs. A new incinerator has been planned, which will burn thousands of tonnes of rubbish, but will provide a noisy eyesore. And now the rail services that currently link the village to Oxford in a two hourly service are set to switch to a once every six hour service - the death knell many fear for Appleford halt. I'm emotive as from the age of 12 the train was my escape route to the bright lights, record shops and, on a Friday night, the ice rink in Oxford. This became ever more vital once Mrs Paul finally closed down the village shop, with its never ending supply of chewy cola bottles, in the early eighties.

The village, in Astrerix like fashion, is full of resistance however and has over the last few years got ever better at organising and protesting. A regular newsletter campaigns on local issues. A dynamic fun loving vicar, perfectly pitched for a rural parish, cheers everybody up with jolly sermons and chocolate and the MP Ed Vaizey seems genuinely engaged.

As the train pulled in the platform was filled with protesters brandishing placards. On the opposite platform stood a photographer from the Oxford Mail. The driver was confused and waited for the village to get on. The photographer got confused and asked the train to pull out.

'No one is using the train!' said Marion, who has lived in the thatched cottage, up by the church, forever.

'What are you doing, then?' asked the driver not unreasonably.

'Protesting!' said another man, who I didn't recognise.

'What about?' asked the driver.

'That there soon won't be trains for us not to use!' said Marion smiling, with that she raised her placard defiantly.

O Appleford at the heart of the nation!